FILM / Feast for the eye: The movies have a legendary appetite for food and all its accompanying rituals: John Lyttle digests cinema's most memorable meals

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The Independent Culture
The best chefs say food should be kept simple. If only. Eat to live may be the bottom line, but society seldom allows our relationship with sustenance to be a mere matter of fuel and function.


No, food is a ritual. For good reason: ritual is a mark of civilisation and the thing we call appetite is a primal drive that needs to be tamed for the general good. So the preparation and presentation of protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre automatically becomes metaphorical, speaking volumes about class, confidence and, ultimately, control.


The dinner table is where the most formal aspects of the ritual are best observed, which is why the visual media are always keen to drop in for a bite. How else could TV dramas like Middlemarch and Scarlet and Black justify their perennial boast of 'high production values' without offering audiences crystal glasses, gleaming silverware, gold-rimmed plates, candelabra and creamy-white lace napkins? No wonder the big-screen Age of Innocence (1993) serves up half-a-dozen dining scenes, the wry twist on tried convention being that the elaborate victuals are photographed separately from the actors, confirming that fine cuisine has star status in itself. Food for thought.

A feast for the eyes, these ornate displays of conspicuous consumption are meant to cower not only the guests, but also the viewer, into 'proper' appreciation. This isn't nosh - this is an art form. The purpose is intimidation, a truth lavishly illustrated by Cleopatra (1934), in which Claudette Colbert simultaneously dazzles and diminishes Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) with a spectacular barge banquet, replete with roast peacocks, dancing girls and a shower of rose petals. There's far too much food to be eaten, which is the point. The gross plenitude is a mark of privilege.

As such, it is devoutly aspired to. Social-climber Alice Adams (1935) hopes to dupe her prospective in-laws with a tasteful sit-down meal, decanting sloppy black maid Hattie McDaniel into a uniform and serving steaming soup on the hottest night of the year: a recipe for disaster. Katharine Hepburn provides the necessary external display, but, the film says, lacks the requisite style - as does McDaniel, giving the game away by periodically crying 'Grub's up]' The sequence is a lesson in comic humiliation: one should stomach one's social inferiority.

In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) brutish arriviste Michael Gambon has no such qualms. He may ape the upper orders by playing the galloping gourmand, but he, and the movie, incessantly skip to the loo to show exactly what happens to all that 'rich' food: what Sherlock Holmes would call 'a process of elimination'. Gambon's a glutton who isn't much interested in, say, the savoury subtleties of sheep's brain or calf's liver but he has an instinctive understanding of the rank (literally) symbolism of sheep's brain and calf's liver. He'd probably be happier with mushy peas, except he knows that menu choices are sometimes less to do with pleasure and more to do with power.


Decadence (1994) illustrates the proposition with a vengeance. Vast quantities are downed, enjoyment is virtually nil. Stephen Berkoff is nominally high-born, yet could be Gambon's boorish twin. He shovels pasta into his maw, barely registering its existence, though he can distract himself enough to order the waiters about. No wonder The Company of Wolves (1984) shows the gentry turning into ravenous animals as they gulp their goodies, their bestial nature revealed.

Later Berkoff and illicit lover Joan Collins gorge themselves on the usual suspects (oysters, caviar, champagne, exotic cheeses) until fit to fart - which Berkoff does with relish until forced to throw up everything he's recently devoured. If he were to explode, as the greedy Mr Creosote does in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life (1983), you wouldn't be a bit surprised. It would certainly be no loss. If you're beyond basic satisfaction from ingestion perhaps you're better off dead.

That's the message of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (1973). Four suicidal male friends - a pilot, a judge, a TV presenter, a chef - dig their graves with their own teeth. The traditional dinner- party scene becomes a chaotic orgy of despair as course after course pumps already heavy hearts with lethal cholesterol. Whores, not ladies, decorate the table; still, even the protracted screwing is pointless (once everything is permissible, everything means nothing). Marcello Mastroianni chews on a ham bone and screws standing up at the same time, yet neither of life's two great, inexorably linked sensual experiences fires a desire to go on. He is abandoned, in every sense.

Is this why the professional classes cling to the dinner party as centrepiece of, and justification for, their gilded existence? The satirical joke in Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is that his six characters want to indulge, but are continually interrupted by adultery, partners jumping from windows, surrealist pranks and silly stories. As they become increasingly disoriented, the narrative breaks down; aptly, as none of the normal rules now apply.

Operating at the other end of the social scale, Mike Leigh's 1990 Life Is Sweet - a title redolent of artificial flavours - also employs food to denote disintegration. How telling that we never see Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent's working class family gathered together, tucking in. Is this why the clan reeks of the dysfunctional? Broadbent has dreams of transforming a dilapidated van into a mobile chippie, but he can't even get his barbecue to burn. Friend Timothy Spall opens a French eaterie without knowing the first thing about cooking or running a restaurant. And grumpy daughter Jane Horrocks hides Mars bars in a suitcase under her bed and furtively vomits into plastic bags, a textbook bulimic who doesn't want to be surrounded by eagle eyes as she commits the sin of eating.


Horrocks would make a rotten director. Filming meals is a daunting technical challenge, cutting from face to face, making sure the level of wine in sundry glasses is maintained from take to take, that portions don't appear, disappear and reappear etc. It's worth it to exploit the ceremony's automatic tensions: everyone on their best behaviour, nervous of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Wallace Shawn doesn't really want to quarrel with Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre (1981); supping together signifies sharing, however specious. Mouthy mother Leslie Caron doesn't mean to detonate lunch by spilling the beans about Juliette Binoche's incestuous dead brother in Damage (1993). Mel Brooks fails to realise he's disrupting the Last Supper when he asks the disciples 'Separate checks?' (see 1981's History of the World Part One). John Hurt could simply die of embarrassment when his stomach explodes mid-meal, 20 minutes into Alien (1979). And Meryl Streep knows she shouldn't decorate Jack Nicholson's face with Key Lime pie in Heartburn (1986). She's a bad hostess, but she can't help herself. The constraints of etiquette burst and animal passion holds sway.


Is it any wonder that some can't stand the heat and head for the kitchen? Nine and a Half Weeks (1986) sees Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger empty the fridge, a soft porn advertisement for that old food / sex equation, neatly parodied by 1991's Hot Shots in which Charlie Sheen fries an egg on Valeria Golino's bare belly (the way to a girl's heart is through her stomach). Or that a solitary Goldie Hawn should sit surrounded by empty tins and packets, watching TV, her body free to balloon and balloon in Death Becomes Her (1992)?


But, lest we forget, food can also liberate. Babette's Feast (1987) uses bacchanalian excess to loosen the stays of 19th-century Lutheran piety. Here, hedonism humanises. 1993's Like Water for Chocolate also pits sensual appetite against manners. One tasty dish - quail with rose petals - so enflames a virginal maiden that she spontaneously combusts under the shower, the smell of her longing attracting the attentions of a passing bandit.

And Tampopo (1986) highlights not only the dignity of the obscure art of noodle-making, but celebrates the glory of good food; chow that is, most importantly, balanced. A noodle, we're told, may be profound or synergetic. Tampopo says food is finally life and that we shouldn't be ashamed to enjoy. When a mother dies at the dinner table, her husband is wise to order his children, 'Keep on eating] It's the last meal Mom cooked] Eat, eat while it's hot]' He knows that even noodles cool fast in the cold of the grave.

(Photographs omitted)